Comparing Beowulf and Gilgamesh

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A Comparison of Beowulf and Gilgamesh


    There are many differences and critical comparisons that can be drawn

between the epics of Beowulf and Gilgamesh.  Both are historical poems which

shape their respected culture and both have major social, cultural, and

political impacts on the development of western civilization literature and

writing.  Before any analysis is made, it is vital that some kind of a

foundation be established so that a further, in-depth  exploration of the

complex nature of both narratives can be accomplished.

 

        The epic of Gilgamesh is an important Middle Eastern literary work,

written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets about 2000 BC. This heroic poem is named

for its hero, Gilgamesh, a tyrannical Babylonian king who ruled the city of Uruk,

known in the Bible as Erech (now Warka, Iraq). According to the myth, the gods

respond to the prayers of the oppressed citizenry of Uruk and send a wild,

brutish man, Enkidu, to challenge Gilgamesh to a wrestling match. When the

contest ends with neither as a clear victor, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close

friends. They journey together and share many adventures. Accounts of their

heroism and bravery in slaying dangerous beasts spread to many lands.

 

        When the two travelers return to Uruk, Ishtar (guardian deity of the

city) proclaims her love for the heroic Gilgamesh. When he rejects her, she

sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy the city. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull,

and, as punishment for his participation, the gods doom Enkidu to die. After

Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh seeks out the wise man Utnapishtim to learn the secret

of immortality. The sage recounts to Gilgamesh a story of a great flood (the

details of which are so remarkably similar to later biblical accounts of the

flood that scholars have taken great interest in this story). After much

hesitation, Utnapishtim reveals to Gilgamesh that a plant bestowing eternal

youth is in the sea. Gilgamesh dives into the water and finds the plant but

later loses it to a serpent and, disconsolate, returns to Uruk to end his days.

 

        This saga was widely studied and translated in ancient times. Biblical

writers appear to have modeled their account of the friendship of David and

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Jonathan on the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Numerous Greek

writers also incorporated elements found in the Gilgamesh epic into their

dragon-slaying epics and into stories concerning the close bond between Achilles

and Patroclus.

 

        Gilgamesh is definitely the best known of all ancient Mesopotamian

heroes. Numerous tales in the Akkadian language have been told about Gilgamesh,

and the whole collection has been described as an odyssey-the odyssey of a king

who did not want to die.  This is one of the major differences between the

heroic characters.  Beowulf, in order to achieve immortality through the tales

of his bards, must perish in battle to accomplish this task.   A similarity

between both characters is their desire to obtain immortality.  They both have

different techniques in trying to reach their ultimate destination, although

both share the unique qualities of being flawless, strong, and heroic to the end.

 The fullest extant text of the Gilgamesh epic is on twelve incomplete Akkadian-

language tablets found at Nineveh in the library of the Assyrian king

Ashurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BC). The gaps that occur in the tablets have been

partly filled by various fragments found elsewhere in Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

In addi tion, five short poems in the Sumerian language are known from tablets

that were written during the first half of the 2nd millennium BC; the poems have

been entitled "Gilgamesh and Huwawa," "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven,"

"Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish," "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World," and

"The Death of Gilgamesh."

 

        The Gilgamesh of the poems and of the epic tablets was probably the

Gilgamesh who ruled at Uruk in southern Mesopotamia sometime during the first

half of the 3rd millennium BC and who was thus a contemporary of Agga, ruler of

Kish; Gilgamesh of Uruk was also mentioned in the Sumerian list of kings as

reigning after the flood.  Much like Beowulf, there is, however, no historical

evidence for the exploits narrated in poems and the epic.

 

        The Ninevite version of the epic begins with a prologue in praise of

Gilgamesh, part divine and part human, the great builder and warrior, knower of

all things on land and sea. In order to curb Gilgamesh's seemingly harsh rule,

the god Anu caused the creation of a Enkidu, a wild man who at first lived among

animals. Soon, however, Enkidu was initiated into the ways of city life and

traveled to Uruk, where Gilgamesh awaited him. Tablet II describes a trial of

strength between the two men in which Gilgamesh was the victor; thereafter,

Enkidu was the friend and companion (in Sumerian texts, the servant) of

Gilgamesh. In Tablets III-V the two men set out together against Huwawa

(Humbaba), the divinely appointed guardian of a remote cedar forest, but the

rest of the engagement is not recorded in the surviving fragments.

 

        In Tablet VI Gilgamesh, who had returned to Uruk, rejected the marriage

proposal of Ishtar, the goddess of love, and then, with Enkidu's aid, killed the

divine bull that she had sent to destroy him. Tablet VII begins with Enkidu's

account of a dream in which the gods Anu, Ea, and Shamash decided that he must

die for slaying the bull. Enkidu then fell ill and dreamed of the "house of

dust" that awaited him. Gilgamesh's lament for his friend and the state funeral

of Enkidu are narrated in Tablet VIII. Afterward, Gilgamesh made a dangerous

journey (Tablets IX and X) in search of Utnapishtim, the survivor of the

Babylonian flood, in order to learn from him how to escape death. He finally

reached Utnapishtim, who told him the story of the flood and showed him where to

find a plant that would renew youth (Tablet XI). But after Gilgamesh obtained

the plant, it was seized by a serpent, and Gilgamesh unhappily returned to Uruk.

An appendage to the epic, Tablet XII, related the loss of objects called (perhap

s "drum" and "drumstick") given to Gilgamesh by Ishtar. The epic ends with the

return of the spirit of Enkidu, who promised to recover the objects and then

gave a grim report on the underworld.

 

        Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem, the most important work of Old

English literature. The earliest surviving manuscript is in the British Library;

it is written in the West Saxon dialect and is believed to date from the late

10th century. On the basis of this text, Beowulf is generally considered to be

the work of an anonymous 8th-century Anglian poet who fused Scandinavian history

and pagan mythology with Christian elements. The poem consists of 3182 lines,

each line with four accents marked by alliteration and divided into two parts by

a caesura.  The structure of the typical Beowulf line comes through in modern

translation, for example:

 

                Then came from the moor  under misted cliffs

                Grendel marching  God's anger he bore ...

 

Much like Gilgamesh, the story is told in vigorous, picturesque language, with

heavy use of metaphor; a famous example is the term "whale-road" for sea. The

poem tells of a hero, a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who rids the Danes of

the monster Grendel, half man and half fiend, and Grendel's mother, who comes

that evening to avenge Grendel's death.  Fifty years later Beowulf, now king of

his native land, fights a dragon who has devastated his people. Both Beowulf and

the dragon are mortally wounded in the fight. The poem ends with Beowulf's

funeral as his mourners chant his epitaph.

 

      Both Beowulf and Gilgamesh are loved and are shown loyalty from their

people.  Although both Beowulf and Gilgamesh represent two different types of

heroes, both achieve ultimate good through their actions.  The need for love and

loyalty is also manifested throughout both poems. Death merely becomes an

incident in the lives of Beowulf and Gilgamesh.  They both teach its audience

and invaluable lesson:  What matters is not how long, but rather how well we

live.


Bibliography

Chase, Colin, ed. The Dating of Beowulf. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Fry, Donald K. The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968.  

Fulk, R.D., ed. Interpretations of Beowulf: A Critical Anthology. Indiana University Press.Indianapolis: 1991.

Greenfield, Stanley B. and Daniel G. Calder. A new critical history of old English literature. New York : New York University Press, 1986.

Nicholson, Lewis E., ed. An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. South Bend, Ind. University of  Notre Dame Press, 1963.

The Norton Anthology of World Literature, ed.  Gilgamesh: Norton and Company, 1985. 


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